Friday, 16 September 2016

On the night of a lunar eclipse, there's a beautiful halo around the moon in the Boyne Valley

A halo around the moon over the Boyne Valley, viewed from Newgrange.

On the night of a penumbral eclipse of the moon, it seemed appropriate that I should go out to Newgrange and Dowth to try to get a photo of the full moon over the valley where, anciently, people watched its movements very closely.

When I arrived at Newgrange, there was a giant ring, or halo, around the moon. In older times, the locals would have said, in the native tongue, "Tá Fáinne ar an Ghealaigh".(1) Literally, "there is a ring around the moon".

Tonight's eclipse was what's known as a penumbral eclipse, which means that only the outer part of the earth's shadow falls upon the moon. What this means in reality is that one would probably find it hard to notice that anything was happening, as the moon only dims very very slightly. It's not like a full eclipse, where the moon enters the shadow of the earth and turns a coppery red colour during totality.

In terms of observable phenomena, it was much easier to capture an image of the halo around the moon than it would have been to capture a penumbral eclipse. (As it happens, the eclipse was already over when I arrived at Newgrange).

The halo had changed as the clouds moved when I got to Dowth, whose name might be related to eclipses.

With the autumn equinox only days away, the eclipse interested me even more, and that's because eclipses occurring around the equinoxes signal something very interesting - that the lunar node is at or near the sun's equinox points, and therefore the moon will be at maximum separation from the ecliptic at or near the sun's solstice points. When it is at these points of maximum separation, we get the so-called lunar standstills - either major standstill or minor standstill, depending on what part of the nodal rotation cycle we are at. This cycle lasts 18.6 years, or 230 synodic months (a synodic lunar month is the time it takes the moon to return to the same phase. So if you see a first quarter moon tonight, it will be one synodic lunar month (approx. 29.5 days) before you see its next first quarter phase.

As it happens, we had minor lunar standstill in 2015, and the moon's nodes are currently drifting westwards from the equinox points. The next major standstill will be in April 2025.

(1) McCionnaith, L. (1935), Foclóir Béarla agus Gaedhilge, p.812.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The Tara Brooch - Ireland's finest piece of jewellery

The Tara Brooch on display in the Treasury, National Museum (Archaeology), Kildare St., Dublin.
The Tara Brooch has rightly been described as Ireland's finest piece of jewellery. It dates from the 7th century AD and represents the pinnacle of achievement by the early medieval Irish metalworkers.

However, the brooch has no known connection with either the Hill of Tara, after which it is named, or the High Kings who ruled there. It was, supposedly, found on Bettystown beach in County Meath, a mere four and a half miles (7km) from where I live here in Drogheda.

The story goes that it was found at Bettystown in 1850 by a peasant woman's children. They allegedly found it in a box which had been buried in the sand. However, there is a belief the brooch was really discovered somewhere inland and that the peasant woman's family had changed details of the story to avoid any dispute with the owner of the land where it was really found. On August 24th 1850 (and remember this was just after the Great Famine, when times were tough), the woman offered the brooch for sale to the owner of an old iron shop here in Drogheda. Can you imagine receiving such a fabulous and priceless artifact into your hands and then deeming it to be of little worth? That's what happened:
"[He] refused to purchase to light and insignificant (sic) an article; it was subsequently bought by a watchmaker in the town, who, after cleaning and examining it, proceeded to Dublin and disposed of it to us (Messrs. Waterhouse & Co., Jewellers, Dame Street), for nearly as many pounds sterling as he had given pence for it."(1)

A different story about the discovery of the Tara Brooch later emerged. Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde) had compiled a Catalogue of the Silver and Ecclesiastical Antiquities in the Collection of the Royal Irish Academy in 1862. This was not published until 1915. In it, Wilde refers to certain silver objects found "in the excavation for the harbour wall at the mouth of the river Boyne, near Drogheda, in an oak box, and along with them the brooch called that of Tara."(2)

The only thing in common with the two stories is that the brooch was found in a box and that it was found somewhere along the coast of the Drogheda area.

A view of the Tara Brooch on display at the National Museum. © Anthony Murphy

Whatever the truth about the location of its discovery, the Dame Street jeweller, George Waterhouse, was the one who renamed this most precious item the Tara Brooch, linking the find to the Irish High Kings, "fully aware that this would feed the Irish middle-class fantasy of being descended from them."(3)

And it worked. The Tara Brooch was displayed as a standout showpiece at The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and the Paris Exposition Universelle, as well as the Dublin exhibition visited by the Queen in 1853. Prior to this, it had even been specially sent to Windsor Castle for her inspection.(4)

Around 1867, the brooch came into the collection of the Royal Irish Academy. It was sold to the RIA for the sum of £200, quite a lot of money in those days, and sold "on the express condition that it should never be allowed to leave Ireland".

The Tara Brooch is currently on display at the Treasury room of the National Museum (Archaeology) in Kildare Street, Dublin, where the public can see it for free. You are also allowed to take photographs of it - but there are conditions, so make sure to read them on the museum's website before visiting.Here is the museum's description of the Tara Brooch:

It is made of cast and gilt silver and is elaborately decorated on both faces. The front is ornamented with a series of exceptionally fine gold filigree panels depicting animal and abstract motifs that are separated by studs of glass, enamel and amber. The back is flatter than the front, and the decoration is cast. The motifs consist of scrolls and triple spirals and recall La Tène decoration of the Iron Age.
A silver chain made of plaited wire is attached to the brooch by means of a swivel attachment. This feature is formed of animal heads framing two tiny cast glass human heads.
Along with such treasures as the Ardagh Chalice and the Derrynaflan Paten, the Tara Brooch can be considered to represent the pinnacle of early medieval Irish metalworkers’ achievement. Each individual element of decoration is executed perfectly and the range of technique represented on such a small object is astounding.(5)
Just one final thought, and that is the significance of the Boyne Estuary, if that is indeed where the brooch was found. This is where the builders of Newgrange brought the stones for the monument in from the sea. This is, according to myth, the place where the Milesians landed when they came to take Ireland from the Tuatha Dé Danann. It is also reputedly the place where Saint Patrick landed when he arrived to bring Christianity here. One wonders if the brooch was not part of a haul that was either being brought into the country, or, more likely, being secreted away to be sold abroad; and, if the latter was the case, what misfortune came upon its then owner at the mouth of the Boyne. Whatever happened, we are exceedingly lucky to be able to enjoy its splendor today.

(1) H.A. Wheeler, The Tara Brooch: Where Was It Found?, Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1950), pp 155-158.
(2) Ibid. 
(4) Ibid.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Do the myths about Newgrange and the Boyne Valley mounds offer an insight into their function?

"Myths are just stories," a historian once told me. As far as he was concerned, they were stories that were made up for sheer entertainment. In that mindset, myths are not metaphors for anything, and they certainly don't contain detail about real history, or any information such as astronomical data.

The winter solstice illumination of Newgrange by the sun. Composite © Anthony Murphy.

However, students of mythology know the truth is much more complex than that. Many myths are metaphorical. Some do refer to actual events. And there are stories that appear, in certain interpretations, to contain astronomical information.

My own view is that myths should never be dismissed as mere stories. However, the truth is that in most cases we can only travel so far along the road of hypothesis and speculation, no matter how well grounded it is, because often we are unable to discern the true age of a myth, or how it might have been altered by the voices of time.

In the case of Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth (the former two in particular), there are myths and folk tales that appear to offer a tantalising possibility - that they contain information about these sites and the function of these monuments that might go all the way back into deep prehistory. And so I will discuss some of these myths and folk beliefs in the context of possibility only - without drawing any definitive conclusions, except to acknowledge at the outset that I am excited about the possibilities, which may tinge my investigation with a hint of subjectivity.

Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Images by the author.

Joseph Campbell
I've written in several publications about the Venus connection at Newgrange. Joseph Campbell, writing in The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, referred to a local story that suggested that at sunrise on one day in eight years, the morning star rises and casts its beam into the chamber. This story was recounted, it would appear, before the excavation and restoration of Newgrange in the 1960s, work which resulted in the leading archaeologist Michael O'Kelly witnessing, in 1967, the light from the winter solstice sun entering the chamber. Prior to the restoration, neither sun nor Venus (nor any heavenly body) could be seen from the chamber because of the subsidence of the passage cap stones during the five millennia since Newgrange was constructed.

Of particular intrigue is the fact that archaeologists maintain Newgrange was "sealed up" within a few centuries of being built after cairn material slipped off the top and covered the kerb and entrance, and that its passage and chamber lay concealed for about four millennia until local landowner Charles Campbell rediscovered the entrance in 1699AD.

Another folk belief in the 1930s, recounted recently in this blog, told how the Tuatha Dé Danann brought stones from the Mourne Mountains for the building of the mounds. During the excavations in the 1960s, it was indeed discovered that there were water-rolled granite cobbles at Newgrange (which had been hidden beneath the cairn slip). These, it has been revealed, came from the Cooley Peninsula, but have their origin in the Mournes.

In his 1990 paper, Time, Memory, and the Boyne Necropolis, John Carey examined aspects of two stories - one about Newgrange and one about Dowth. The Newgrange story, from Tochmarc Étaíne, The Wooing of Étaíne, tells of how the Dagda sent Elcmar away so that he might have illicit relations with Elcmar's wife, Bóinn. The Dagda worked a magic spell, so that Elcmar would seem that he is away for a single day, when in fact he had been away for nine months. Dagda lay with Bóinn and the child Oengus Óg was conceived and born. The Dowth story, from the Dindshenchas, told how the king, Bresal, had brought the men of Ireland to build him a tower to reach heaven. The king's sister cast a spell on the sun to make it stand still, so there would be endless day to allow the tower be built.

The myths of the Boyne monument appear to indicate control of time.

Carey makes a very interesting observation: "I am aware of no Irish legends associating the control or construction of sacred sites with the manipulation of time other than those which concern the tumuli of the Boyne valley."

In the tale Altram Tighe Dá Mheadar (The Fosterage of the House of Two Vessels), Manannán advises Oengus on how to take Newgrange from Elcmar: "Command him not to come (again) to the house from which he departs until ogam and achu are mingled together, until heaven and earth are mingled together, and until the sun and moon are mingled together." The mingling of heaven and earth could imply the mating of sky with the earth-mound Newgrange during winter solstice, while the latter reference to sun and moon being mingled might refer to an eclipse, something that I think is implied in the story about Dowth, in which the magic spell on the sun is broken when Bresal commits incest with his sister and a sudden darkness comes upon the land. (For further discussion of this theory, see Island of the Setting Sun, chapter 6.) I have discussed at length on the Mythical Ireland website and in my books the idea that the mound builders were competent astronomers, whose knowledge of the complex movements of the moon (and by extension the predictable patterns of eclipses) were recorded in stone, and inherent in the design of the monuments.

Ronald Hicks
Writing in 2009, Ronald Hicks of Ball State University suggested, in a paper entitled Cosmography In Tochmarc Étaíne, that the story of The Wooing of Étaíne was "meant as an allegory about lunar cycles in which Étaín represents the moon". These lunar cycles, writes Hicks, include the 19-year Metonic Cycle, which was"likely to have been of interest to the ancient Irish".

In one part of The Wooing of Étaín, Midir's wife Fuamnach became jealous of her husband's new wife, Étaín. By magic, Fuamnach turned Étaín into a butterfly (some versions say a fly) and raised a storm that buffeted the butterfly around Ireland for seven years.

At last, however, a chance gust of wind blew her through a window of the fairy palace of Angus on the Boyne. The immortals cannot be hidden from each other, and Angus knew what she was. Unable to release her altogether from the spell of Fuamnach, he made a sunny bower for her, and planted round it all manner of choice and honey-laden flowers, on which she lived as long as she was with him, while in the secrecy of the night he restored her to her own form and enjoyed her love.

There is only one "window" at Newgrange - the sky window, or roof box, as it's more commonly known. This aperture allows the sun to shine into the chamber on winter solstice. Perhaps the "sunny bower" is the chamber of Newgrange, illuminated by the rays of the rising sun on Winter Solstice. I discuss this and some of the other above mentioned myths about Newgrange in this video:

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The public is not allowed inside Knowth's ancient chambers - get a rare glimpse in these videos

The public are not allowed inside the passages and chambers of the ancient megalithic passage-tomb of Knowth. There are various reasons for this - not least the fact that in Knowth's eastern passage, one has to crawl on the ground in order to gain access to the chamber, while the western passage is too low and narrow to allow people in there. It's simply not practical.

However, thanks to modern technology, you can get a glimpse inside Knowth to get a sense of what it looks like inside these deep stone corridors, built 5,300 years ago. In the video below, you can look inside the western passage in this laser scan animation.

In the video below, which was part of an RTE news report, Philip Bromwell goes inside Knowth's eastern chamber and gives us a rare glimpse of what it's like. Take special note of the size of the ceremonial basin which is located in the right-hand recess of the chamber.

I consider myself very lucky to have been able to enter both passages and chambers, and indeed to have been able to take photographs in the western passage. That was in the year 2000, when the archaeologist, Professor George Eogan, was still carrying out work at the site. George allowed Richard Moore and I to visit both passages. It was an unforgettable experience, and one that so few have shared.

You can see some of my photos taken during that visit to Knowth's western passage and chamber at this link:

Inside Knowth's western passage.